Monday, June 23, 2008

The Thorn in the Flesh

There is a kind of assuming which falls into the category Jesus called “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” In this particular kind of misreading, mental and intellectual leaps and suppositions are made because the reader does not know the rest of the Bible, does not use the “precept upon precept” method, or is determined to put a meaning into a text which doesn’t belong there.

Consider the phrase, “thorn in the flesh.” Among Christians, this has come to mean a kind of physical suffering which one must endure because God has given the suffering as a blessing. The thorn in the flesh is closely related to the concept of “a cross to bear.” These phrases are often used in many Christian writings. And the would-be devotionalist should be aware that these phrases have caused great comfort to some, great distress to others, and annoyance to many.

How did this come about? In one of his epistles, (2 Cor 12:17) Paul writes that because he had an abundance of visions, he was burdened by a “thorn in the flesh,” a messenger of Satan sent to buffet him so that he might not be exalted because of the visions. Paul recounts that he asked God to remove the thorn but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” This is all Paul said. Assumptions and suppositions have been made. Although Paul uses a phrase that was elsewhere used in the Bible ( Numbers 33:55, Judges 2:3) to describe persecution caused by demonic activity (something like our phrase “a pain in the neck” but much more deadly) many Christians gloss over the phrase, “a messenger of Satan” and create a situation in which God and Satan are working together to keep Paul’s pride down. Paul says that the Satanic messenger was sent to prevent him from being exalted in his visions. But he does not state that exaltation was a bad thing. Many Christians, who have not had a multitude of visions, often refer to their illnesses as their thorns in the flesh. Why? Their situation barely resembles Paul’s, but the nature of suffering is that it seeks an answer and therefore people will define their illnesses as a thorn or as their “cross to bear.”

This is also a case where the obvious is completely ignored. This happens a lot in studying the Bible. It’s as if people are so determined to make a Bible verse mean something totally different than what it actually says that they build up an entire alternate reality in spite of the fact that the reality is al;ready there. This verse is one of those verses that a regular untrained believer would believe what it says. It’s a verse that you pretty much need a seminarian to confuse you and not believer it. Paul describes the “thorn in the flesh” parenthetically as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” Parenthetical phrases are usually by definition a clarification placed in a sentence so folks get a clearer idea of what’s going on.

And what a parenthetical this is! First we are told that it’s a messenger. That’s the same word used for angels in the Bible. Then we are told it’s a messenger of Satan. That would mean it’s a Satanic angel. Then we are told it buffets him, which means it beats him up. Now, granted some folks have had no experience with demons hitting them either in the night or in the day but one would think that Christians would believe that demons exist. One would think that Christians wouldn’t go spiritualizing the word “satan.” Moreover, Paul tells us that this is from Satan. Now, if it is a messenger from Satan why does Paul ask God three times to rid him of this messenger from Satan? And why does God tell Paul that God’s grace is sufficient for Paul? True, this presents a problem. And I can see why some people would think that God is “working with this messenger of Satan” to use this thorn in the flesh to help Paul. But would God (and here is my parenthetical), WHO HAS NO DARKNESS IN HIM, work with a Satanic presence?

I think it all comes down to How do we define grace? What exactly is grace? Is it the totality of what God has so given us undeservedly? Is it mere comfort? Is it God's love?

If we see grace as something that is merely about comfort and not a thing of power, then we can say that God is allowing Paul to be beaten up for Paul’s own good. And Paul should be happy because he must remember that God loves him, yadda yadda. Then we can start saying the messenger is really sickness given to Paul to chastise him. Although, in the Bible, God never gives people illnesses as a blessing but as a punishment.

But what exactly is this grace that is given us? Folks who read this verse seem to think that Paul endured this problem all his life. Again, there is no proof anywhere that Paul was always sick with his eyes (he was a tentmaker for heaven’s sake!) or homosexual (Paul said God had delivered folks from this) or sick with any other issue. Folks who want to believe in the thorn in the flesh as a kind of permanent sickness often point to Paul leaving his friend at Miletus sick and to Timothy’s stomach troubles. Folks like to talk about the section where Paul says the Galatians accepted him when he came and he was in sorry shape. "You accepted me, etc." (Gal 4:12-14) But remember, when he met those believers the first time, he had just been stoned (possibly to death) by an angry mob. Of course he was in bad shape! Then other folks say that when Paul said, "you would have given me your own eyes" that that meant he had something wrong with his eyes. Let's not start taking a slang and building a backstory about it. Then there are folks who say that Paul wrote, "Look what big letters I make when I write to you." So they assume Paul couldn't see and had to write his letters largely. But Paul was talking about the largeness of the message, which went on pretty long. Not the largeness of the actual alphabet. Letters have two meanings, remember. That's a case of folks reading something and forgetting that there is another meaning for the English word "letter."

But back to Trophimus whom Paul left sick. First, just because he left his friend sick doesn’t mean his friend stayed sick. Most miraculous Christian healings occur as a process. And we all know what happens when we drink strange water in strange places. So Timothy’s stomach troubles don’t really count. The interesting thing about Timothy’s tummy trouble and Paul’s thorn is that they share the same cure: God has not given them the spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Just as Paul told Timothy to fight the good fight, God is probably telling Paul to fight the good fight. Isn’t that what fighting the good fight means? Acknowledging the power of God in us, the authority we have, the grace given to us? In Philemon Paul tells Philemon that our faith grows by the acknowledging of the good things in us. I have no doubt that the reason God told Paul that God’s grace was sufficient for him was that God’s grace WAS sufficient to destroy the messenger from Satan. If grace is only a peaceful feeling and assurance of God’s love, then we are of all people the most weak. But if grace is Christ in us the hope of glory, the treasure in earthen vessels, the authority given to us by Jesus Christ to cast out devils and heal the sick,---if grace is ALL the good spiritual and physical things we have inherited through Christ’s life, death, and atonement, then Paul would have sooner or later destroyed this messenger in the flesh…. Because God’s grace was sufficient for him.

Nevertheless, the Bible Study writer who aims to destroy long-standing traditions such as this is going to have a long and controversial row to hoe. There are many reasons why Christians seem to be unhealed -- including our habit of thinking that if we don't see anything then God hasn't answered how prayers (Remember Daniel hadn't seen anything for 21 days yet the Lord HAD answered his prayers. This "thorn in the flesh" verse, however, is not a good hook to hang a theology of sickness on.
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